Friday, June 09, 2006

Craft x2 and steak

Last night I had a nice dinner out with my friend Ashley, one of my favorite dining/cooking companions from way back. After a brief attempt at Cookshop (way too crowded, and then the last-minute realization that the bartender was a friend's ex-girlfriend sent us out of the restaurant fast), we ended up at the brand new Craftsteak on Tenth Avenue, which is lined up with the other disturbingly oversized eateries over there. It's like an upscale disneyland now, and it scares me a bit. But I digress.

The main dining room is impressive, and (unusually for a restaurant) the art is striking. We sat in the very comfortable lounge area -- big tables, rounded red leather chairs, giant picture windows with a fab view of the chelsea car wash and the clusterfuck of cabs and limos outside -- but man, it was COLD. Like freezing your ass off, iced air blowing onto the food cold. Everyone in the front area had their coats on, and it was warmer outside the restaurant than in.

Thrill of the night - a real live, honest-to-God Tom Colicchio spotting! He came up front for a minute to check in with the hosts, looking terribly sexy in his whites. That Top Chef gig did wonders for his sex appeal.

But the food: the weirdest thing. It all tasted very much like, umm... water. It was the strangest sensation, one I've never had from a Craft(bar) meal; I felt like could taste the nothingness of the water used in the polenta, the empty flavor of a watery hen of the woods, and even the NY strip steak ($42!) after its initial satisfying saltiness and tenderness just kind of flavored out into nothing. Nothing lingered or moved me, which was disappointing given that Craft has thrilled me before. The prices of the steaks are just ridiculous, and I didn't feel like the staff was particularly helpful at explaining the differences between the cuts and styles of beef. Good ginger rum cocktail though, and we had a great night regardless of the overall lingering taste of NOTHING.

But the real star of this Craft post is the private dining experience I had last weekend at the main Craft on 19th Street. Amazing food, incredible service, smart dining room; just an excellent experience all around. Which is why I am especially disappointed in the off-kilter Craftsteak food.

To backtrack: my friend Kevin celebrated his conversion to Judaism last week, a beautiful journey for him and his family, and I found the whole weekend very moving. Kevin had asked for my help many months ago in selecting a restaurant for a celebratory dinner, no expenses spared. Initally, the main concern was everyone's food issues: kosher, vegan, etc. Yikes. I led Kevin to Heirloom, a creative vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side that promptly closed a few weeks after he reserved their private back area. Not a good sign. Kevin asked again for help, and after a long conversation I hit upon Craft as a good idea, thinking that a restaurant with their philosophy and approach would be very accomodating to guests with special food needs.

My favorite development is that in the end, Kevin didn't have much input in the passed appetizers that we snacked on during the cocktail hour: foie gras mousse, steak tartare, chorizo eggrolls, caviar and creme fraiche on a potato chip. Basically the most un-vegan, anti-kosher food you could ever come up with. I loved every bite, though I think I was in the minority. The restaurant did a great job making everyone happy overall, and for the main courses, some of the people at our table thought that the vegan versions of the food were better than the "real" dishes!

The sit-down meal, served family style, was spectacular across the board. A raw tuna appetizer was a beautiful bright red color, giant slabs of tuna laid out geometrically on the plate. A huge platter of beets looked like gems in shades of pink and red and gold -- they were ridiculously delicious, prepared very simply, and I wish I had the recipe. The main course was in the form of roasted chicken, cut up into perfectly-sized pieces and sitting in an oval copper pan that i wish I owned. Crispy skin, tender meat and completely great. Roasted whole carrots (obviously grown just for them because the carrots were of a size that I have never seen sold in stores) came in severeal colors: yellow and orange and a darker pumpkin color. A dish of cavatelli with spring peas was phenomenally buttery and rich, I think it maybe had a little basil pesto in there too, all green and bright. Craft pulled out their mushroom mania for us too, with oversized platters of mushrooms on every table, a mixture of their fungal greatest hits. They were rich and intense, almost too much mushroom madness for me (and they were far better that the hen of the woods that we had last night at the steak place.) For dessert they placed two whole chocolate tarts on each table, brought out cute little copper servers of carmelized bananas and individual dishes of caramel ice cream, dolloped into quenelles. An extra hit at the end of the night was the caramel corn they placed on each table to snack on after all the dishes had been cleared away.

Every bite was delicious, and it was a fitting way to celebrate with Kevin and his family. Thanks to the lovely Doris and Lillman Dwarka for making it all happen.